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Frank DeFilippo: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Socialism

Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) speaks with New York Times reporter Alex Burns at the University of Maryland last year. Photo by Meghan Thompson

President Trump, testing 2020 campaign themes, likes to taunt Democrats as the “Socialist party” and hopes to make it stick.

Newt Gingrich, the nutty professor, often nags about “European-Style socialism.” Donald Rumsfeld, a couple of administrations ago, sneered that America’s NATO allies represented “old Europe.” In fact, Trump, a nationalist and isolationist, harrumphed in his 2019 State of the Union speech that “America will never be a socialist country.”

Much of the scare-babble is aimed at Democrats’ call for universal health care, which is supported to one degree, or definition, or another, by all 26 of the party’s candidates for president. The intended epithet is directed mainly at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who disavows it, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who proudly embraces being a socialist-Democrat by his own definition.

But Trump and the magpies who mimic him had better be careful. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans support some form of universal health care.

In contemporary America, Trump and his fellow travelers are not talking about fierce fighters for social justice such as Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg, Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. They are bad-mouthing what much of the developed world already does.

Say what they might, in their political dog-whistle ways, there’s a lot that America can learn from socialism and Europe by emulating what they do best. The difficulty with the American economy, however, is that middlemen and their cut get in the way of doing what’s efficient and often accepted as commonplace.

Right up front is the French universal health care system, ranked by the World Health Organization as the world’s best. It’s inexpensive, it’s not-for-profit and it’s virtually fraud-proof.

The only program in America that resembles the French system is the Veterans Administration health care network, which operates independently of the general health care system at low cost and no profit. It is linked nationwide by computers and negotiates its own prescription drug prices without government interference and drug company demands. The VA kind of patterns European-style socialism.

The French health care system is largely financed by the government through national health insurance to which everyone contributes – every citizen pays 6.8 percent of income – and all citizens are covered, the European version of Medicare for everyone.

In America, there are between 40 million-45 million people, or one in seven Americans, with no health insurance of any kind despite efforts to blanket everyone in by one means or another.

The French system consumes 11 percent of the nation’s GDP, at a cost of $3,926 per capita, much lower that the United States where the employer-based, for-profit system eats up 16 percent of the nation’s GDP and is expected to rise to 18.2 percent this year. The American system is a combination public-private system. During the recent Democratic debate, most candidates, except Sanders and Warren, favored retaining private insurance.

In America, for example, an MRI costs about $1,200. In France, an MRI costs $148. The French system refunds 70 percent of health care costs and 100 percent of costly or long-term illnesses.

French doctors earn about 40 percent less than American physicians because they pay no tuition for medical school and thus have no student loan debt to jack up fees. Malpractice insurance is much cheaper in France, too. And here’s the kicker. The French use an encoded “smart card” system, carried by every citizen, that virtually eliminates fraud.

By contrast, two recent cases uncovered fraudulent billings to Medicare and Medicaid of $1.3 billion and $1.2 billion in major health care scams of over-prescribing opioid drugs. Previously, a doctor in Texas a while back was charged with fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid in a $375 million health care scheme – the largest case of health care fraud uncovered up to that time.

A smart card block, similar to the one used in France, would have intercepted the scam. In America, there’s a political stand-off over women’s health care through contraception and abortion, issues that were settled more than a half century ago but have been revived as the cultural battle of the moment. Yet no one even blinks over the common form of male contraception, the vasectomy.

Recycling is another area where America can learn a lesson or two from Europeans. There, incineration of waste is the preferred method of disposal while landfills, common in America, are the last resort. Even certain types of waste are banned from landfills.

Frank A. DeFilippo

Methods of waste prevention and disposal are governed by the European Union Commission. Waste prevention is linked directly to improving manufacturing methods and reducing the use of hazardous substances which helps to control emissions from incinerators. (Maryland recently banned the use of Styrofoam containers. In a separate concern, the incinerator in South Baltimore has been declared the city’s biggest polluter, yet it still collects state subsidies.)

In Europe, 27 nations agree on standards, but in America there is a constant battle among the 50 states and the federal government, business interests and environmentalists as well as conservatives and liberals. (Maryland is in a constant tug-of-war with Pennsylvania over drifting emissions.)

It’s difficult to get anything done in America because of competing interests and the efforts of business to abuse and repeal regulations, a major goal of the Trump administration. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example, support Republican deregulation efforts to benefit their oil and paper mill interests. Environmental regulations are among the reasons many American manufacturers have moved overseas. They can now pollute other countries.

Europe has always been far ahead of America in the use of nuclear power. In the Europeans Union, 14 of 27 countries have nuclear reactors and 15 percent of the energy produced is nuclear power. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, had altered European thinking, though. France, which is considered the commercial nuclear power model for the world, is considering a partial shutdown though 71.6 percent of its electricity is nuclear generated.  Germany is phasing out nuclear plants. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new nuclear facilities. Italy has decommissioned its nuclear plants and since 1990 has been nuclear-free. Trump is pushing for a to return to coal and the environmental dangers that come with it.

In America, building a new energy source of any kind is difficult. New power plants are authorized infrequently. No new refinery has been built in America in 30 years and one was decommissioned in 1992, in Louisiana, putting a further strain on fuel supply. (In the early 1970s, Crown Petroleum proposed building a refinery on mudflats in northern Anne Arundel County but the plan was rejected over environmental concerns.)

Wind and solar power are off to a slow and tentative start on account of private financing being in short supply because of risk and uncertainty. Natural gas is the nation’s only plentiful supply of energy ready and available to be cultivated for the future.  The holdup is how to get it out of the ground (fracking) without endangering the underground water supply and other natural elements that could affect human health. (Maryland has banned fracking.)

Nearly every major city in Europe has a vast network of public transportation modes. In America, adequate public transportation is limited to a handful of major cities such as New York, Boston, the District of Columbia and Chicago.

In Europe, the rail systems are legendary. The object of public transportation is to move people, not cars. And in Europe, people-movers employ both land and water to move subways, trains, buses and boats by canals and rivers. In Rome, adventurous people rent Vespas and in London they ride the tube or the underground, depending on how deep the tunnel is. Public spaces, such as parks, squares and boulevards do not exist in America on the scale that they do in Europe.

Finally, Europe was far ahead of America in the production of fuel-efficient cars (Trump is rolling back new standards set by the Obama administration over the objections of the states and the auto industry.) The cost of gasoline in some European countries is triple that of the price in America, driven by taxes and not the cost of oil.

America is married to the automobile. Los Angeles is a city of highways and expressways that were built to keep the city forever reliant on cars. And there are various associations of roadbuilders, lobbying and special interest organizations whose business – and campaign contributions – is to keep the nation addicted to the automobile.

America the beautiful is also America the banal. In Europe, history and progress happily co-exist sides-by-side. Architecture is another expression of European supremacy in the creative arts that America can emulate.

There are breathtaking and eye-boggling examples across the continent: the Kumthaus multi-media complex in Graz, Austria; the Pompidou Center in Paris; the futuristic Maxxi in Rome, a short hop from the Coliseum; the Reichstag in Berlin; the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the City of Barcelona, Spain, an outdoor art gallery created by Gaudi; and perhaps the most spectacular of them all, the Millau, the steel-crafted viaduct at Aveyron, France, the highest vehicular bridge in the world that resembles an artwork in spun silver.

In America, most architecture involves erecting steel skeletons and wrapping them in pre-fabricated brick slabs. The architect Frank Gehry, for example, has executed some of his most daring work (the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) abroad rather than here at home.

In Baltimore, there are only four signature buildings with architectural pedigree – Gehry’s Harper House in the Village of Cross Keys; the World Trade Center by I.M. Pei; and One Charles Center and Highfield House, both designed by Mies Van Der Rohe.

But perhaps the most graceful of them all, the no-name Ambassador Apartments, on Canterbury Road, was built with government subsidies by the WPA during the Great Depression, a gesture to European-style socialism.

Socialism is being given a bad name by Trump and his allies. Technically, socialism is a system where government controls production, a far cry from anything proposed by any Democratic candidate for president. Trump’s idea of economics and government, if he comprehends either, is the Darwinian notion that screwing each other improves the breed.

To most Americans who even entertain the idea of socialism, the concept connotes a helping hand or a handout, depending on the degree of separation from an absolute right.

Yet the private sector is resistant to adventure and, more often than not, relies on government to be the risk-taker of first resort and, in turn, the beneficiary of transferring the successful result, a piece of the action, if you will. Socialism, as understood by the business sector, is a system of government bailouts for Wall Street failures, a bottomless pot for the banking system and the purse that saved the auto industry.

The space program is another good example of socialism that benefits business. Without NASA and government wherewithal, there’d be no satellite spin-off technology to the private sector such as cell phones and satellite TV and an array of other developments at government expense such as Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos’ experiments with space travel.

To be sure, there is more corporate welfare than individual handouts – $4 billion in annual oil industry subsidies, trillions in bank bailouts, billions to offset the costs of Trump’s trade wars, agriculture subsidies and tax loopholes created by lobbyists (and campaign contributions) for the wealthiest Americans.

America just might be the most socialist nation on earth. We prefer, with a straight face, to call it something else. No wonder Europeans are often bemused.




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Frank DeFilippo: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Socialism